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Extending the range of the Air Force with the B-21

Screen shot of Air Force graphic

When Lt. Col. James Doolittle took off from the USS Hornet in his twin-engine B-25B Mitchell medium bomber in April 18, 1942, he couldn’t have imagined the immediate impact his raid would have on the outcome of World War II or the long-term impact it would have on bomber operations. Lt. Col. Doolittle and his “Raiders” successfully engaged their intended targets and shook the resolve of the Japanese, who were now acutely aware that the United States could reach their mainland. However, the decision to conduct the dangerous Doolittle Raid was made because of a tactical problem that the United States faced: limited range. At the time, U.S. land-based aircraft capable of conducting an air raid on Tokyo did not have nearby airfields to support the operation and U.S. carrier-based aircraft could not travel the distance to Tokyo without putting their carriers in harm’s way. Through ingenuity, bravery, and American grit, Doolittle’s B-25Bs – loaded with extra fuel and on a one way trip off of the USS Hornet – saved the day.

Seventy-five years later, the U.S. Air Force faces the same problem of the limits of range. Adversaries, specifically China and Russia, continue to invest and modernize in capabilities that will push future foes further out from their borders. With leadership from my former colleague Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein, the Air Force has identified this range challenge and is taking action. The Air Force understands that to effectively conduct an air campaign in the 21st century, the U.S. will need the capability only a long-range stealth bomber can provide. In other words, the U.S. needs the B-21 Raider as quickly as possible.

{mosads}The B-21 Raider, named in honor of Doolittle and his “Raiders”, is expected to make its debut in the mid-2020’s and will serve as the backbone of the U.S. bomber force for decades to come. Not only does the B-21’s long-range strike capability allow us to shift our launch points onto U.S. soil—inherently decreasing the risk of a strike on a U.S.-manned airbase—but its stealth capacities will allow for it to penetrate high-threat areas undetected. Moreover, this next-generation bomber will be built using “open systems architecture”—an engineering approach that allows for the platform to rapidly integrate new technology as it becomes available. The open systems architecture will allow for future adaptation, switching capabilities as missions and threats change. A system that can adapt and evolve is a system that provides immense utility for strategic planning and gives our decision-makers a competitive advantage when dealing with emerging threats.    

The Air Force announced its long awaited Bomber Vector with the release of the Fiscal Year (FY) 19 budget just a few weeks ago and it highlights the need to modernize as well as incorporate the B-21. The U.S. Air Force will retire its B-1B Lancer and its B-2A Spirit fleet once a sufficient number of B-21s are available. The current bomber force of 158 aircraft has an average age of more than four decades—42 years to be exact. But the decision to retire the B-1B and the B-2A was more about capability and cost than age. The oldest of the Air Force’s bombers, the B-52 Stratofortress, is slated to receive engine overhauls and continue to fly missions until well into the 2050s. Both the B-21 and the B-52 will have nuclear weapon options and will also share a capability that was a key consideration for keeping the B-52 in service: the Long Range Stand-Off cruise missile. The recently released Nuclear Posture Review states, “The Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missile replacement program will maintain into the future the bomber force capability to deliver stand-off weapons that can penetrate and survive advanced integrated air defense systems, thus supporting the long-term effectiveness of the bomber leg.” In layman’s terms, the LRSO will extend the range of our bombers and allow the Air Force to reach into an adversary’s backyard from further distances. Together, the B-21 and the B-52 will form the future of the bomber fleet.

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to visit some of the facilities associated with the B-21 as well as receive briefings from Air Force Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base. From these experiences, I am confident that the B-21 program remains on track for production and delivery. As the chairman of the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, I view it as my duty to authorize the necessary funds for the B-21 program and deliver this critical capability as soon as possible. With the B-21 in our nation’s inventory, we can rest assure that the limited range issue that Lt. Col. Doolittle faced will no longer exist.

Congressman Rob Wittman represents the 1st District of Virginia. He serves on the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, where he is the Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.           

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